Someone wrote me to ask a question about the use of candles in congregational worship. As we are approaching a time of year when many congregations use candles, this is a timely question. Often, however, the way we ask a question can significantly affect the answer we arrive at.
I am starting to see candles used more and more in the services. Now, I know that the Bible never says not to use them, however, my concern comes in with how the world views the use of candles today…The only use of candles in the world today is for mystical and new age experiences. What is the church communicating when we turn off the lights and light candles sitting in an unorganized way? The use of candles seems to suggest that we empty our minds to get an emotional high…Candles just give the service a mystical feeling. A feeling that I do not believe to be grounded in Scripture…So what do you think about all this? Should I stand against this as bringing pagan worship methods into the church? Or should I think of this as changing times?
I appreciate this person’s desire to watch out for compromise in our worship of God. We always need to be on the alert for ways the world is making inroads into our thinking. However, before I answer the question I want to make a few comments on the way the question was asked.
It sounds like the questioner has some pre-conceived ideas about why a church would use candles. But we can’t automatically equate certain external forms with heart intentions. People often use candles at weddings, but I don’t think the motive is anything mentioned above. People have claimed that churches who use overhead projectors also offer “talk-show,” man-centered sermons. That’s guilt by association, which is unhelpful, unwise, and uncharitable.
It also sounds like the questioner has decided what effect candles have. “Candles just give the service a mystical feeling.” That may be true in some instances and for some people. But, candles might intentionally be used to illustrate Jesus coming as the Light of the world, or highlight that the Word of God is a light for our path. They could also be used to emphasize that we are God’s people who have been called out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). The atmosphere that multiple candles produce can also draw attention to the awe we should experience as we encounter the God of the universe. However that should be balanced by the fact that we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and can enter God’s presence with freedom and boldness (Eph. 3:12).
I think we have more than two choices in response to the use of candles. We don’t need to stand against this as “pagan worship” because that relationship can’t be established. Neither should we simply accept it as part of “changing times.” Change will surely come, but not all change is beneficial. Every generation is responsible to weigh innovation, new methodologies, and new forms against the authority of Scripture.
Although it could have been expressed better, the concern here is a valid one. We don’t want to use multiple candles simply to create an environment of mystery, without being aware of potential downsides. Candles don’t bring God nearer or reveal his character in specific ways. They might be used occasionally for illustration, but should never become a central element in our worship of God. We can’t expect candles, banners, music, or any other aesthetic element to produce what only God can do through the Gospel, His Word, and the Holy Spirit. An over-emphasis on means can result in distracting people from the object of our focus – the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor. 4:6), most clearly proclaimed in the glorious Gospel.